Title: The More The Merrier
Author: marcicat

Fandom: Avengers MCU, Iron Man Armored Adventures
Word Count: 11,300

Rating: T

Summary: Gene Khan interns in the MCU!verse, and Darcy finally meets one of the Fantastic Four. No one gets a pet, but Thor eats a lot of pudding cups, and the two Tonys bond over Extremis.



"I need your help."

She didn't jump, but only because she didn't hear him.  (It was a Thursday afternoon; she'd retreated to the anonymity of headphones hours ago.  Most people couldn't tell whether you were muttering obscenities because your coworkers were driving you insane or if you just had odd taste on music.)

So she didn't see Gene arrive until later, when she watched the security footage.  He Mandarin-ed right into her office in a swirling flash, then powered down, or whatever they were calling it, and stood around looking increasingly awkward until she noticed him lurking.  And then she did jump, and he jumped, and the whole thing really did look completely ridiculous.

"I need your help," Gene said.

"What?"

"I'm not saying it again."

Darcy thought there was probably a protocol written down somewhere -- steps to take when an inter-dimensional traveler appeared in front of you and asked for your help.  Then again, it was Gene.

So she said, "Hey, Gene.  What's up?"

"I found a reality where I abducted Tony."

She had only the sketchiest idea of what he was talking about, but she did manage not to say 'only one?'  Which she thought probably earned her a few points. Instead, she went with, "Okay.  And?"  She was pretty sure it wasn't the moral implications that were bothering him, but maybe that was too mean.

Gene frowned.  He looked upset, but didn't actually say anything.

"It caused a zombie apocalypse?" Darcy guessed.  "Alien invasion?  SHIELD on your ass?"

He gave her a sharp look.  "How did you --  Never mind.  No, it's not that.  It’s — it seems better."

His unease made more sense then.  Even the general access, non-classified reports were surprisingly full of alternate universes, divergent timelines, and mirror doubles.  It didn’t take much reading between the lines to find a common thread of 'I've seen another reality and I think this one may be the dystopia, which is unsettling in the extreme.'

Still, that's what the psych department was for.  She was pretty sure there was even a memo that circulated -- 'So You Found Out You're Married to Captain America in Another Universe, What Now?'  It did not recommend seeking out random near-strangers in yet another alternate reality.  "I'm not hearing a question," she said.

Gene was silent for a few seconds.  Then he said, "How do I get what he has?"

Darcy glanced at her screen.  Reports didn't actually write themselves, despite what the science teams seemed to think.  "Can you give me twenty minutes?  Get a coffee, or something?"

He stared at her.  She stared back.  Awkward silences -- not a problem.  "Twenty minutes," he said finally, and swept out through the door very much like Thor.  Must be a cape thing.

At exactly the twenty minute mark, Gene stalked back into the room, cup of coffee in his hand.  He set it on the desk in front of her and gestured at it as if to say 'there, you see?'  "Is this for me?" she asked.  It smelled good.  It was also still hot -- which meant there had definitely been magic or a microwave involved at some point, since the cup declared it to be from a shop a good ten minutes away.

"It tastes better from a mug, but people are less likely to think you're trying to poison them if it's in a to-go cup," Gene said, like he was quoting an oft-repeated lesson.  Then he rolled his eyes and added, "As if you couldn't poison a to-go cup," which she thought was probably his own addition.

"It's the thought that counts?" she offered.

He shrugged.  "That's what Pepper always says."

"You do realize I meant you should get coffee for yourself.  Or whatever, if you're not a coffee drinker."  Just in case that sounded ungrateful, she wrapped a hand around the cup and edged it closer to her keyboard.  It wasn't like she wouldn't drink it, after all.  "But, you know, thank you."

"You're welcome."

She took a sip.  Gene was totally her favorite alternate universe possibly-a-supervillain.  And the only one who'd ever asked her for advice, so that was something.  "So, what is it exactly that other you has that you want?" she asked.

Gene was quiet for a long time, and she resisted poking at the silence by drinking more coffee.  It was nothing like how she usually drank it (which was reassuring when she took the time to think it through), but it was good enough.  "They trust him," he said finally.  "They treat him like he's --"  He cut himself off and glared out the window.  She'd lobbied hard for that window; it definitely didn't deserve that sort of treatment.

Before she had to intervene, Gene said quietly, "They act like a family.  He's relaxed around them."

She sorted through everything she knew about Gene, and everything they'd guessed about him after his last visit.  Everything he wasn't saying about his own reality.  "Okay," she said.  "Three things."

"First, I think you may be underestimating your ability to fake it till you make it.  It always looks different from the outside than it feels when you're living it."  He didn't look convinced, so she added, "You might try watching security footage of yourself with the sound off.  It's a pretty good perspective changer."

She grabbed a notepad off the desk and wrote down twelve sets of initials.  “Second thing. This is the current Avengers lineup," she said.  "Give or take.  Of this list?"  She circled seven sets of initials.  "They've ended up fighting against over half the team at one point or another.  Jan jokes that it's a requirement for joining, but she's kind of not really joking."  She waved the paper for emphasis.  "Villains who change their mind are kind of their thing.  I'm betting it's not all that different in your universe."

Gene didn't look convinced, but he looked like he wanted to be.  "What's the third thing?" he asked.

"Oh.  Well."  She'd given herself all of points one and two to come up with a nice way to say it, but no luck.  It would have to be the straightforward approach.  "It's just, abduction?  Not really a way to build trust.  Pretty much in any universe.  Whatever made the difference, it wasn't that.  I don't know if that helps or not, but there it is."

She heard Bucky coming before Gene decided what to say next. He entered the room at a jog and Gene stared at him with what looked like a serious case of confusion.  Darcy waved.  "Hi.  This is Gene; he's from an alternate universe."

Bucky looked mildly intrigued.  "Huh.  Well, we're off to fight Doombots," he said.  "Just thought I'd let you know your visitor is giving the security techs fits.  I haven't heard the word quantum thrown around so much since Stark and Banner went at it at movie night last month."

She ignored the quantum part to focus on Doombots.  "Shouldn't that be the Four's gig?"  (She actually hadn't met any of the Fantastic Four; they didn't seem to be around much.  She figured she should at least see them in person before she started in on the aspersion-casting that certain members of the Avengers enjoyed so much.)

Bucky rolled his eyes.  "They've fucked off to the Negative Zone.  Again."

"Couldn't you just tell Doom his nemesis isn't around right now and ask him to come back later?"

"Victor von Doom?" Gene said, looking fascinated.  "Really?  How did he escape from Cthulu?"

Darcy exchanged a look with Bucky, who just shrugged.  He said, “Sounds interesting, but I’m already running late for the jet.  Have fun!"

"You too!" she called after him.  Then she turned back to Gene.  "So.  Cthulu?"

***

Gene stuck around after his — she was pretty sure significantly edited — explanation, while Darcy clicked open an array of windows on her computer. Technically, she wasn't allowed to watch the official SHIELD monitoring of Avengers battles.  But the team didn't tend to be subtle, and it usually didn't take long for news crews and enterprising bystanders to show up and start updating through non-official channels.

(Occasionally, even JARVIS got in on it.  She opened the video that had just popped up in her email.)

The picture was shaky, and the audio had been stripped, but she could see the bird's eye view (Iron Man's eye view? JARVIS cam view?) of a street cluttered with smoking Doombots.  The fighting seemed to be centered around a fountain -- which, weird, but it wasn't like Doom filed a manifesto for these things.

As she watched, one of the 'bots doubled in size and its eyes started an ominous looking flash pattern.  Out of nowhere, Cap's shield took it out at its knees, at the same time Bucky dove out a second-story window, shifted into a wolf in the air, and took its head off.  He was human again as he hit the ground, rolling smoothly out of the shield's return trajectory.

Audio cut in suddenly. "JARVIS, cut that and send it, they're clearly practicing shit like that.  I can think of someone who'd appreciate seeing it in action."  The view shifted, and she heard, "And now Spiderman's here, great.  It's a party."

That was it, and she thought about playing it again, but Gene was still there and -- she was pretty sure -- watching over her shoulder and judging.  When she turned to look at him, though, he looked -- wary?

"What?" she said.

"You're not surprised," Gene said.

She'd learned not to guess when people said things like that.  "By?"

"He just transformed into a wolf.  And back.  You saw that."

"Yup.  He does that sometimes."

Gene seemed to relax.  "I thought so, when he was here, but I didn't want to say anything. If you didn't know."  He paused, then added.  "Secret identities have been -- problematic."

"I think that one's a universal constant," she said.

Sushila poked her head into the office and said, "It sounds like the fight is going well, they're in cleanup mode now."  Sushila could always be counted on for the latest news.  Darcy suspected she had an in with one of the higher level agents, but it was possible she was just really, really good at scanning the newsfeeds.  "Oh, hey Gene," she added.

"Thanks," Darcy said.  Gene just nodded.

"Also, HR officially wants us to have more fun in the workplace," Sushila said, waving a piece of paper.  "Mandatory morale boosting activities to be announced monthly."

"Who's not having fun?" Darcy said.  She was having fun.  It was mixed in with occasional bouts of terror and running for her life, but variety was the spice of life, right?

Sushila rolled her eyes.  "I know, right?  If you're here tomorrow, it's now designated red day."

No way.  "Red day," she repeated, just in case she'd somehow misheard the first time.  "As in, everyone here will be wearing a red shirt?"

"Someone in HR has a real sense of humor," Sushila said, which she was pretty sure was a yes.

"Right."  She was scheduled to be at the Foundation, but it might be worth it to switch things around just for the photos.  She should make sure she actually owned a red shirt first.  "What's the reaction so far?" she asked.

"About what you'd expect.  High percentage of Star Trek jokes, plus the detailers.  'Does it have to be all red?  Can it have a logo on it?  Does it have to be a shirt, or can I wear a vest instead?'  As if I'm the one who came up with it in the first place.  Oh, and Admin's talking about making a Wall of Fame and a Wall of Shame."

Gene was looking at them like they were both crazy.  "I have to go," he said, and disappeared.

"Nice," Sushila said, and Darcy couldn't tell if she was serious or not.  It was a pretty impressive exit.  Sushila waved the paper again.  "Do you need a copy of this, or will you remember?"

Realistically, she should take the copy.  “I’ll live on the edge, thanks.  My morale feels boosted already.  It must be working.  Or maybe that's the coffee."

"Probably the coffee," Sushila agreed.

***

Darcy liked SHIELD’s cafeteria. It tended to be occupied day and night, and busy enough so you could pick up decent gossip without looking like you were trying too hard. Unfortunately, sometimes they ran out of actual food for no apparent reason. “I’m looking for juice,” she repeated, trying to sound friendly and rational. “Preferably made from actual fruits. It’s for Doctor Foster’s team; you think they’re getting their five to nine servings with regular meals?”

It got her a ‘are you kidding me’ look and a terse, “Let me check the back.”

“Thank you!” Darcy called after her. “You’re saving them from scurvy!”

“I don’t think anybody actually gets scurvy these days,” Bucky said, sliding into the spot next to her.

“You can’t be too careful,” she told him.

“Check out the table by the bulletin board.”

He leaned over the counter and squinted into the kitchen — she figured juice would be arriving any second; Bucky and Steve were cafeteria favorites. She slid her trays towards him and turned around as casually as possible. The table by the bulletin board — which had been empty when she arrived — was occupied by Maria Hill and May Parker. Darcy wasn’t the only one looking, either.

(Technically, Darcy’s office was actually Mrs. Parker’s office. May was invited to SHIELD’s procedural meetings as the Foundation representative, and therefore had office space in SHIELD’s ground HQ, since most things — including meeting minutes, one assumed — weren’t supposed to leave the building. In reality, May and Fury hated each other with the strength of a thousand fiery suns, and Darcy had never actually seen her in the building. Hence the office appropriation.)

“Fury’s still out of the country?” she guessed, and Bucky shrugged.

“Hell if I know, but that’s the rumor.” Six cartons of one hundred percent fruit juice were proffered by a suddenly-more-accommodating kitchen staffer, and she tucked all of them between the trays while he was still dazzled by Bucky’s smile. “Steve says he hasn’t seen him.”

“Want to go eat lunch on the roof?” Darcy asked. “I probably shouldn’t be seen loitering in the office that’s not technically mine for a while.”

“Banner’s still up there meditating.”

(Darcy wasn’t at all convinced that Bruce spent his time on the roof meditating.) She tried hard not to have audible air quotes around the word when she said, “We can meditate with him. Is Steve free? It’ll be a party.”

Bucky shrugged again, but it had a sort of pleased bounce in it that she was learning to pick up on.  Unfortunately, they only made it halfway to the doors before Maria swung around and waved them over.  "Lewis, Barnes," she said.

"Hello Darcy," Mrs. Parker said calmly.  She said everything calmly, as far as Darcy could tell, it was like her superpower.  "We were just discussing Mr. Khan."

Who?  “You mean Gene?” Darcy said.  "Is everything okay?"

"Some concerns have been expressed," Maria said.  She assumed that meant 'he's a potentially villainous liability with demonstrated massive powers at his disposal; of course everything is not okay.'  She wondered how the SHIELD in Gene's universe dealt with it all.

Mrs. Parker said, "It seems advisable to agree to his requests.  You've been suggested as the best choice to meet Mr. Khan's guidelines while keeping him under closer surveillance than any of our usual options."

She really had no idea what they were talking about, so she kept a serious expression on her face and said nothing.  *Am I missing something?* she sent to Bucky.  All she got back was a vague sort of *?*

"Congratulations," Maria said dryly.  "You have a minion, until he decides he's learned enough to be a real boy, or gets mad enough to provoke an attack.  Don't screw up."

She was beginning to get an inkling of what was going on.  "Gene wants to hang around officially?" she asked, because it was always good to get clarification.  "To learn things?"

Maria looked at her suspiciously.  "He said he got the idea from you," she said.

"Yes," Mrs. Parker said, somehow making it seem like she wasn't interrupting.  "Gene has requested that he be allowed to observe and participate, similar to an internship.  In return, he will offer information about his own universe, including the Makluan rings."

*He's using this reality as practice for his own,* Bucky said.  *Sure, that's not creepy at all.*

"We want that information," Maria said.  "If there's any chance we may find ourselves facing someone wielding the rings, we want to know about it."

"Didn't we already have a Mandarin?"  Maria gave her a look.  "Right, got it.  Fake rings, fake Mandarin.  So when do we start?"

"Oh, he's here now," Mrs. Parker said.  "Probably still in my office.  I believe you're familiar with it?"

Darcy so wanted to be like Mrs. Parker when she grew up.  "I'll go let him know," she said.  "Unless you need us for anything else?"

Maria waved them off.  Darcy tucked in behind Bucky and let him lead the way through the crowd at the doors. Even carrying lunch trays, he was a more imposing figure than she would ever be.

*Detour to pick up Gene, then lunch?* Darcy sent.

*Does he eat?*

She had not actually seen him eat.  On the other hand, they didn't actually have any food for him.  *We'll find out?*

Gene wasn't in the office when they found him.  He was, however, eating.

"Look, call the store a marketing expense and see if you can get someone to sponsor it.  That frees up that money so you can put it back into actual upgrades."  

“It’s an antiques store that fronts for a gang headquarters; I seriously doubt anyone is interested in a sponsorship.” They were in the conference room across the hall from the office. Gene had a donut in one hand and a suspicious look on his face.

Darcy didn’t recognize the room’s other occupant, but Bucky tensed next to her. “Johnny,” he said. “Aren’t you supposed to be in the Negative Zone?”

(So this was one of the elusive Four — he looked an awful lot like Steve, didn’t he? The tabloids were not wrong about that.)

“We got back early,” he said. His tone was casual, but she noticed he took a step away from the table as he spoke, and both hands raised up slightly. It probably would have looked placating on someone who couldn’t shoot fire from their palms.

Gene looked between them, then down at his donut. The face he made had her wishing for a camera. On closer inspection, it didn’t look like he’d actually taken a bite out of it, and she watched him set it carefully on a napkin and push it a few inches down the table.

“What are you doing here?” Bucky asked.

“Hey, we’re SHIELD allies too, buddy. But now that you mention it, I’m actually here to pick up the kids. Got here a few minutes early for a perfectly legitimate child care related visit.” He skirted the edge of the room, and Darcy figured there had to be something she was missing. He paused in the doorway to point at Gene. “You might be surprised about sponsorships. Text me if you have questions.”

There were a few seconds of silence after he left. Then Gene said, “He has children?”

“They’re his sister’s,” Darcy offered. “Susan Storm and Reed Richards have two kids, Franklin and Valeria. Does your universe have a Fantastic Four?”

Gene made a vague hand gesture. “I’ve never met them,” he said, which wasn’t really an answer. He paused, cleared his throat, then added, “In my reality, Valeria is the name of Viktor von Doom’s deceased wife.”

Darcy blinked. “Wow. Okay, that’s weird. But probably something that can wait till after lunch. Also, you’re officially a temporary SHIELD minion. Intern. Whatever. Nice work. Want to come eat on the roof?”

***
***

Gene dropped back into the Armory more literally than he would have liked. He missed the floor by nearly six inches, and stumbled a few steps before catching himself on a chair. (It would have been nice to blame Tony’s “improvements” to the original Makluan layout, but the reality was just that jumping between dimensions was tiring. At this rate he was going to wind up giving in and letting Tony give him one of the devices he said he wasn’t working on.)

“I’m here,” he said, turning towards the computer displays. The computer could, technically speaking, identify him by biometrics alone. And yet — he sighed. “Go for Team Iron Man,” he added. The screens lit up around him. He blamed Pepper for the passcode, but only when she couldn’t hear him, since — as she constantly reminded them — it could be so much worse.

“Gene, is that you? Finally! Can you believe it?” Pepper’s voice was unmistakably excited, even without a video link. He was relatively sure she wasn’t doing it for his benefit, that she just had a remarkably short gap between feeling and vocalizing. Still, the clarity was appreciated.

Rhodey’s’ voice was next, with something in the background that sounded like engine noise. “Hey, man, welcome back. How long ago did you get Tony’s text?”

“I came as soon as it arrived,” Gene said. (An announcement of ‘holy sh* I just woke up Captain America’ didn’t exactly come every day, after all. And it had been a while since he’d been home.)

Pepper said, “There’s still a delay, then. We got it hours ago.”

“An hour,” Rhodey corrected. “As in, one. Where is Tony, anyway?”

Gene watched one of the screens outline itself in red and start blinking. Security feature? Screensaver? Neither? Tony’s voice finally came on. “Okay, the good news is that Captain America is totally fine and not brain melted.”

There was a pause, and then Rhodey said, “But? What’s the bad news?”

“He sort of ran off? When no one was looking, and I’m not sure where he is now.”

Gene tuned out the exclamations from all sides. As quietly as he could, he said, “Computer, can you show me the outside security feeds?”

Nothing. Seriously, you kidnap someone’s father one time and their computer holds it against you forever. He tried again. “Computer, please put the outside security feeds on the screen.”

Success — and success again, if the Captain America of this reality looked anything like the one he’d just come from. “Tony?” he said. He didn’t bother waiting for a pause in the conversation, trusting that at least one of them would pay attention regardless. “Captain America is here. Outside the Armory.” Though it looked like he wouldn’t stay outside for long, given the intensity of his efforts to get inside. Gene reached for the rings around his neck with one hand, and pulled out his phone with the other. SHIELD was still accepting his calls; presumably they would be able to talk down a recently thawed super-soldier if anyone could.

“What? No way. Are you sure?”

“Is he okay? Do you even know how fast he would have had to run to get there that fast? Maybe he stole a car! Can he do that?”

“I’m looking at the security feed; that’s definitely him,” Tony said. “He really shouldn’t have been able to get that far, though.”

Gene stayed quiet, since the answers were either obvious (Captain America, yes, no) or silence would be considered an acceptable stand in for ‘I don’t know.’ Plus, he had a visitor.

Captain America burst through the door in an entirely unsubtle show of force. Apparently palm-print doorbells weren’t a big thing in his time. He stopped once he was inside, breathing hard, and stared at Gene. Gene stared back.

“Hello,” Gene said finally, because Pepper, Tony, and Rhodey weren’t going to stay silent forever, and it seemed polite to at least offer a greeting.

“Who are you?” Captain America said.

“My name is Gene,” he said. After a moment’s hesitation, he added, “Do you know who you are?”

The look that got him was half disbelief, half incredulity. “Of course. Steve Rogers.”

“I told you he wasn’t brain melted!” Tony hissed over the connection, probably not quietly enough given how the Captain’s eyes cut towards the screens.

Gene managed not to roll his eyes, but only barely. He said, “Yes. You’re Captain America, I’m Gene Khan. The year is 2013, you’re currently in New Jersey. Welcome back.”

Steve coughed, and actually swayed a little where he was standing. “They, uh, hadn’t actually gotten around to telling me what year it was,” he said.

“Oh,” Gene said. “Sorry.” He winced a little at the thought that everything they said was being listened to and probably recorded for posterity. “Can I get you anything? Water? Chair?” Because it seemed a little strange that he was still standing next to the door, after going to all the trouble of breaking in.

“Water, if it’s not too much trouble.” Steve moved towards a chair without any more prompting, but he was still staring at Gene like he was trying to figure something out. “Are you here a lot?”

If learning the year was a shock, Gene thought dimension hopping would be a bit much. “Sometimes,” he hedged.

“You — seem familiar, is all. I came this way by instinct; I was…” He trailed off, then focused back on Gene. “Expecting someone else.”

Gene wasn’t sure what to make of that, but he knew he didn’t want SHIELD speculating. He needed more information. “Water’s in the refrigerator,” he said, pointing out the unit. Turning towards the computer screens, he said, “Tell me you’re on your way.”

“Two minutes out,” Tony said. “Got held up in security clearances, but Coulson stepped in for us.”

Steve’s ears picked up the suits long before Gene’s, and he tensed. It was a long two minutes. Finally, Tony said, “Incoming. With food. Man, what did this door ever do to you?”

And then he was there (no suit, but with both hands full of boxes and a slightly wary expression). “I have pizza,” he said, dropping the boxes on a table. “And heavily-fortified protein shakes, which is what SHIELD thinks you should be eating.” He waved the packets at Steve, who frowned. “I figure if you can bust out of a lab, sprint across a state border, and break into my former home-away-from-home, what you have for dinner is really up to you.”

Pepper and Rhodey came in from above, shedding their suits as they arrived — Steve blinked, but he didn’t look alarmed. Interesting.

“Gene!” Pepper said. “You’re back!” She stopped just inside arm’s reach and looked him up and down. Right — hug homework. He reached out and carefully wrapped his arms around her shoulders. After that, Pepper enthusiastically took over until she deemed the hug successfully complete.

“Can I hug Captain America too?” she said when she stepped back.

Now Steve looked alarmed. “I —” he started.

“Food first,” Rhodey said firmly. “Then questions. Hugging after, and only once mutual agreement has been reached by all parties.”

Pepper laughed, and Tony said, “Now you sound like Roberta. I thought you didn’t want to be a lawyer.”

“I just figured someone has to be the tactful one,” Rhodey said.

“Oh, like you’ve never been the one with the crazy plan. What was that last month, then, with the submarine?” Tony stepped around the table with a series of increasingly ridiculous hand gestures, and Gene finally realized they were doing it on purpose — moving so that they were all in Steve’s view, and keeping him from feeling like the center of attention.

(It was working; Steve was eating and watching them with only borderline suspicion, and Gene couldn’t help wondering how many times they’d done that for him.) Pepper handed him a bottle of water and said, “How’s the internship going? Have you met me yet? Am I awesome?”

“Fine. Your first name is Virginia, but people still call you Pepper. We haven’t met. How’s the shop?”

Pepper made a face. “Nice segue. The back end is fine, everything’s smooth. It’s Shrike’s birthday this week; I have a card for you to sign. The front end is — well, you know. Have you thought about something other than antiques?”

He shrugged. Super soldier hearing probably meant Steve could hear everything they said. On the other hand, the business was far less illegal than it used to be. “I have a meeting with someone who might be able to help with that. He’s on the Four there, he handles their finances.”

Steve cleared his throat, and they all turned to look at him. (Making it obvious that they’d been paying attention the whole time, really, but it had been done more out of respect than an intent to deceive, so he thought it was probably fine.) “You said something about questions?” he said.

***

Gene thought the rings might be able to manage time travel, but — for once — he wasn’t certain it was advisable to try without more information. So after a breakfast full of yet more awkward questions (“Why don’t you work for SHIELD?” “How did the war end?” “Where are you going?”) he sent himself sideways in time instead and showed up in the usual spot with less than a minute to spare.

“Hey,” Darcy said. She was looking out the window. “Whoa, you look tired. Late night?”

He hesitated. “They just woke up Captain America,” he said finally. “He had some questions.”

Darcy raised her eyebrows. “I bet.” They stood there for a minute while he tried to figure out how to phrase the next part. Darcy said, “Just spit it out; judgement free zone, right?”

Well, that was one approach. “Can your Captain America turn into a wolf like Barnes?”

“Nope.” She shook her head. “Strictly a one-wolf team. Why, can yours?”

“I think so. He didn’t say, but he — feels the same. I didn’t want to mention it in front of the others if he doesn’t want people to know.”

“Pro tip? I recommend just blurting it out. Remember what you said about secrets? Besides, you’re going to have a seriously unhappy Captain America wolf on your hands if he doesn’t have any wolf-y buddies to keep everything stable.”

He’d been worried about that. “And we would find these wolves where, exactly?”

“Let me call Bucky. I don’t suppose you have a Bucky? No, of course not, that would be too easy.”

“No,” Gene confirmed.

Darcy glanced up from her phone. “Look, do your meeting with Johnny, and we’ll meet up for lunch. I’ll get Bruce to come too, if he’s free. He might have some ideas.”

Gene nodded (though he wasn’t sure Darcy actually saw it, since she seemed occupied by the phone-computer-tablet triangle), and headed for the conference room. He stopped just inside the door. Storm was there, but so were two children and a woman with white hair.

“What,” he said.

“Gene!” Storm replied, like he hadn’t just been incredibly rude. “Good to see you again! The Baxter Building has no running water at the moment — Reed’s fault, I had nothing to do with it — which is actually why the kids were here yesterday too, but that was more of an all-over utilities issue. Anyway, they wanted to meet you.”

Gene tried to convey ‘why would you think that was a good idea’ in a way that wouldn’t be inappropriate for young audiences, but Storm ignored it. “This is Franklin,” he said, and Franklin waved. “And Valeria; she’s sleeping, thank goodness. And this is Christy; she’s our neighbor and most revered child care giver.” Christy nodded.

Gene said, “Hello. Nice to meet you,” and hoped that was enough. Small children were not something he had a lot of (or any) experience with.

“There’s a kid named Gene in my class,” Franklin said, fast enough so that all the words ran together. “His mom made a banner for us. His last name isn’t Khan, though, and Uncle Johnny said yours is, which is like a movie name.”

Franklin was kind of like a tiny Pepper when it came to talking. Gene focused on that instead of trying to explain the actual historic and cultural significance of the Khan name. These days his family tree included aliens, and he was still deciding how he felt about that.

“Is it true you run the mob?” Franklin asked (just like Pepper — straight to the big questions). Christy made no attempt to shush him, but she did offer an apologetic look.

“No,” he said. “Not exactly.”

Franklin looked wide-eyed, and Storm said, “Oh, come on, like your family doesn’t do unusual and noteworthy things.”

Franklin said, “Not like running the mob!”

“I’ll suggest it to your mom at the next family meeting, okay? Gene, you want to offer any clarification there so Sue doesn’t try to kick me out of the building again?”

And here he’d thought switching dimensions would get him away from the awkward questions. He tried to arrange his words as carefully as he could without looking like he was being actively evasive. “My stepfather was in charge of an organization — not the mob — that sometimes broke the law. He was a criminal.” Franklin nodded eagerly. Gene clasped his hands behind his back and hoped no one asked for clarification of the next part. “Once he wasn’t in charge anymore, the organization became my responsibility. But I had a lot of other responsibilities also, and I didn’t have time to give it the attention it needed.”

“Like a puppy,” Storm said pointedly, looking at Franklin. “Being responsible for something is a lot of work.”

“I know that,” Franklin said, pouting. “A puppy wouldn’t be as much work as the mob.”

“Yeah, well, you’re still too little, and you will be until your mom says otherwise.”

“Luckily I have a friend who was willing to take over for me,” Gene finished quickly, trying to wrap it up. On the one hand, it was nice that they weren’t making a big deal out of the whole ‘criminal’ aspect. On the other hand — really? They were comparing his struggle to maintain balance in the city’s underworld with having a family pet? (A small part of him did wonder if offering puppy bribes would be an effective management strategy.) “She makes sure we stay on the right side of the law.” Barely, but he edited that part out.

Storm frowned like he knew there was something significant missing, and Franklin said, “Who? Is it someone we know? We know a lot of people.”

Gene tried to hide his wince. He was pretty sure this was going to end badly. “It’s Pepper Potts,” he said. “We were in school together.” Briefly, and he had faked his paperwork, but technically, it was still true.

“You’re kidding,” Storm said. Gene looked at him. “You’re not kidding.”

“No.” Pepper was the best thing to happen to the Tong in years.

Franklin jumped in with, “That’s smart. She gave me stickers.”

“So, why am I not having this meeting with her, instead of you?” Storm asked.

Gene had thought it was obvious. “Pepper doesn’t need any help,” he said. “She just doesn’t like antiques. It’s only the storefront that’s struggling.”

“Okay. Here’s a thought — switch to something that’s not antiques. Unless you have some particular attachment to them?”

Gene shook his head. He was starting to think this whole meeting had been a mistake, but once the initial misunderstandings had been worked out, Storm actually had some good ideas. (Consumer electronics were a far cry from antiques, but at least he had more personal experience with them.)

Now all he had to do was figure out their Captain America problem.

***

When Darcy advised him to ‘just blurt it out,’ he didn’t think she’d been envisioning the realities of their situation. For one thing, one night away from the scrutiny of SHIELD was all they’d managed to negotiate. Gene arrived back to find Team Iron Man pacing in Stark Tower — and Captain America out of reach on the Helicarrier.

“We could break him out,” Pepper said. “I mean, I don’t have anything better to do tonight.”

“Come on, if Captain America was a werewolf, SHIELD would know, right? Why not just go up there and talk to him?” Rhodey — forever asking the sensible questions. But in this case —

“No,” Tony said. “I’m not sure they do. It’s not in their files, at least. Not anywhere, in anyone’s files, that I can find.” (They all ignored the blatant illegality implied. What’s a little larceny between people who saved the world together once?)

“Hard copy records only?” Pepper asked, and Tony made a face.

Gene said, “The other Captain America isn’t, but their Bucky Barnes is. Along with the rest of the Howling Commandos.” There were a few beats of silence as they all thought about that.

“Well, it’s not subtle,” Pepper said finally.

“No.”

Tony had that look in his eyes like he was starting to overload on Extremis-assisted multitasking, so Gene said, “Hey,” and pushed a rolling chair in his direction. “Can you ask your father?”

Tony sat down and shook his hands out. “Yeah, that’s probably not a good plan. ‘Hey Dad, you know how you and Grandpa fought all the time? Did he ever happen to mention anything about his super secret work with Captain America, like, oh, I don’t know, lycanthropy?’ He may be weirdly well-adjusted about you kidnapping him and holding him hostage —“

Pepper interrupted with, “In the super-creepy dungeon!” and Gene frowned at her. It wasn’t like Howard had always been in the dungeon.

Tony just rolled his eyes. “Anyway, Grandpa Stark is a no-go. Besides, we don’t need to. Steve says he’ll meet us in the Armory in an hour. They’re going to let him go for a run.”

Everyone stared at him.  "What? I gave him a StarkPhone this morning.  He's texting; it's secure."

"Captain America can text?"  Rhodey looked doubtful.

"I told you it's an intuitive interface," Tony said.

Pepper nodded, and added, "He's from World War II, not the Dark Ages."

"It's not that intuitive," Rhodey said.  "Automatic video setting every time you turn it on?  Triple tap while holding down the volume button to sort received texts?"

Pepper looked like she was trying not to laugh.  Tony swiveled in his chair and looked at the ceiling.  "Oh yeah," he said.  "I had sort of forgotten about that.  That's just your phone, actually."

"What?"

"Oh, look at the time.  We should go now, right?  We definitely don't want to be late."

"Tony!"

Gene teleported out while they were still arguing.  He expected to have a few minutes to himself in the quiet of the Armory.  Instead, he found himself directly in front of a very startled Bruce Banner.  A yelp from behind him meant Rick was probably there too.  "Doctor Banner," he said warily.  "Rick."  Did they know he was the Mandarin?  Did it matter?

He dropped the armor anyway, and he heard Rick take a startled breath.   Banner's breathing was tightly controlled, and Gene tried not to make any (more) sudden movements.

The silence broke when Captain America -- Steve, he supposed -- sprinted into the room and skidded to a halt.  Tony and the others were seconds behind him, suited up.  "Where is he?" Steve said, which -- what?

"What?" Tony said.  "Who? Hi Bruce, hi Rick. I honestly wasn’t expecting this when I said you could use the Armory whenever you wanted, sorry.”  The suit disappeared into his skin as he said it, and that was definitely a new trick.  (Gene was reluctantly impressed.)

"You know," Steve said, and it sounded more like a growl.  He scanned the room but settled on Gene, and his gaze wan't what anyone would call friendly.  "Where. Is. He."

It looked like there was a place for just blurting things out after all.  He should have guessed that spending the afternoon with Bucky Barnes and then sharing space with the man’s time-displaced werewolf best friend -- alternate universe or not -- would be problematic.  “I was in an alternate universe,” Gene said. Steve kept advancing.

Banner tensed, and Gene could hear something powering up, though whether it was one of the armors or the Armory’s defenses, he wasn’t sure. “Back off,” he said. “We can talk about this.”

“Okay, time out,” Pepper said suddenly. Unarmored, she slipped into the middle of the room and actually held her hands up in a T. “No one is fighting. Everyone sit down and look respectable. Tony, why is Maria Hill calling me?”

“I’m blocking her calls,” Tony said. “Why?”

And Pepper sounded absolutely delighted when she said, “Turns out Captain America lied to you. He totally snuck off the Helicarrier. Maria wants to know if we know where he is.”

“You call her Maria now?” Tony asked. “Since when?”

“We’ve been working together on the city patrols project. And.. I’m putting her on screen in three, two, one. Hi Maria!”

Maria Hill appeared on one of the computer screens. Her eyes widened as she took in the scene, then narrowed. “Captain Rogers,” she said.

“Ma’am?”

Hill sighed. “Potts, tell me you have this under control and that Captain Rogers will be back on the Helicarrier by 0500.”

“0500, check,” Pepper said. Hill looked around one more time, shook her head, and the screen went dark.

“That was easier than I thought it would be,” Pepper said. “Right, Gene, you were explaining.”

All eyes back on him, then. Wonderful. He took a deep breath and hoped he wasn’t wrong. “I’m the Mandarin. I have ten rings that grant me powers, including the ability to travel between dimensions. I can tell you’re a werewolf. I’m interning in a dimension that includes a Captain America and Bucky Barnes.”

Rick said, “Captain America is a werewolf?” in what was probably supposed to be a quiet whisper. Everyone heard it anyway.

Steve tried for a smile, and Gene relaxed his grip on the rings slightly. “They really managed to keep it quiet all this time, huh? Unexpected side effect of the serum, though we had our doubts. It’s easier to keep in check in a group.”

“The other Steve isn’t a werewolf,” Gene said. “But Barnes is. He suggested Banner’s presence might be useful?”

The room’s attention shifted to Banner, who held up both hands and took a step backwards. “Whoa, I don’t know about that.”

Steve shook his head. “I don’t know; he doesn’t feel like the others.”

“You said it was the serum?” Banner asked. “Gene, was the other Banner exposed to the super soldier serum?”

They hadn’t exactly shared their life histories with him. Gene looked at Tony. “Well?” (He was relatively certain Tony was using his phone to remote access the other SHIELD’s database while Gene was over there. If their positions had been reversed, it’s what Gene would have done.)

Tony’s expression was classic ‘hand caught in the cookie jar.’ “Uh, yes? He was injected as part of a project to develop radiation resistance; it’s how he became the Hulk.”

“That’s why, then,” Banner said. “My transformation comes from a gamma bomb accident, not the serum. Not the same level of compatibility, I’m guessing.”

“You seem like a nice person?” Steve offered.

“So we need to find some werewolves, is what I’m hearing,” Rhodey said. “Leaving aside the fact that I can’t really believe I just said that, do we know where to start looking?”

“Barnes was a werewolf here as well, correct?” Gene said. No one contradicted him, so he kept going. “We should start there. If we can find him, they would stabilize each other.” He risked a look at Steve. “I’m guessing.”

“Yeah, that’d do it,” Steve said. “But —“

“Let’s just look, okay?” Tony said. “We know a little something about people coming back from the dead around here. Practically experts, at this point.”

Screens came to life all around them — maps, radar, satellite imagery, weather reports. “There’s got to be some kind of energy reading we can identify.”

Steve stared at the screens. “But how are we going to get there?”

Pepper had snuck up on him when he wasn’t paying attention, and Gene poked her shoulder in greeting. She leaned back towards him and said, “Believe me, that is going to be the easy part.”

“What’s the hard part?” Steve asked.

“I’m going to miss breakfast with my dad.”

Rhodey groaned. “Dinner night?”

“Oh yeah. More like interrogation night. Seriously, you guys better show up this time, or I will start telling all the stories I know, starting with Justin Hammer.”

Tony flinched. “Low blow,” Rhodey said. “Really, Pepper?”

Pepper stood her ground. “I’m not kidding. You think it’s fun for me to sit across the table from my dad and your mom and talk about my summer job running one of the city’s ‘most notorious gangs’? News flash: it’s not.”

“We’ll be there,” Tony said. “I’ll bring my dad, too. Gene? Might as well spread the fun around.”

Fun was not the word he would have chosen — especially since he got the added bonus of ‘once kidnapped Tony’s dad’ and ‘tried to take over the planet.’ Still, amends were amends. “I’ll be there,” he said.

Rick cleared his throat. “Um, guys? I have no idea what’s going on.”

***
***

Darcy looked at the phone in surprise when it started ringing. It wasn’t her phone; it was Gene’s, and it never rang. She drummed her fingers on the table. On the one hand, whoever it was definitely wasn’t calling to talk to her. On the other hand, it wasn’t like Gene told her not to answer it.

She picked it up. “Hello?”

“Hello, who is this?”

“You called me,” Darcy said. In the background, she could hear someone else talking. Pretty good reception for a cross-dimensional call.

“I called Gene. I mean, I’m looking for Gene Khan, this is his phone number?”

“Who are you? Gene never gets calls.” She had literally never heard his phone make a noise. She hadn’t even known for sure that he had a phone, until he’d left it on her desk that morning.

“It’s Star— It’s proprietary tech.”

Darcy would bet her last chocolate bar that the sentence had started as “it’s Stark tech,” which probably narrowed down the list of potential callers to people who were on Gene’s side, at least. “This is Darcy Lewis,” she said. “I’m temporarily watching Gene’s phone for him. Is it an emergency? I could get him.”

“He left his phone? Wait, you’re in charge of Gene’s internship, right?”

Not an emergency, then. Darcy leaned back in her chair. “Yup. How’s the weather in your dimension?”

“Hot!” someone yelled in the background, and Darcy smiled — she wondered if it was mini-Rhodey or mini-Tony, since presumably she was speaking with mini-Pepper. There was static, and then a loud ‘shh!’ and the first person came back on the line. “Sorry about that. This is Pepper. Pepper Potts? What’s Gene doing?”

“He’s Mandarin-ed up and playing with Thor; they’re in the gym, sparring. It’s an electronics-free zone any time Thor’s down there, with the lightning and all.”

“Thor, huh?” Pepper said. Quieter, like she was talking to someone else, Darcy heard, “I told you I saw Thor, didn’t I say that? Ages ago, and nobody believed me.”

Darcy wondered if their Thor was also mini. Then again, he was thousands of years old anyway, so a decade or two might not even be noticeable. Depended on the decade, she’d guess. “Did you need to talk to Gene? Or leave a message?”

“Well, you could remind him about dinner. Oh, and I had to put him on the patrol schedule for tonight; we’re probably going to need some kind of rule about how many people can go on vacation at once.”

Patrols, she’d heard about. Using criminals to fight crime was apparently working, but she was one thousand percent glad it wasn’t her headache to deal with. Dinner — that was new. “Dinner?” she asked.

The sigh was clearly audible over the connection. “Yeah. Kind of a super-awkward parents and kids get-together; Dad enforces it any time we pull an all-nighter.”

Darcy boggled slightly at the idea of Pepper Potts’ dad, but she restrained the urge to ask for pictures. “Does Gene have parents?” she said instead.

There was a long pause. “He comes alone,” Pepper said, which wasn’t exactly an answer. “I mean, technically he spent a few months with Tony’s dad, but that’s a whole weird situation on its own.”

That sounded beyond awkward, well into the realm of truly uncomfortable. No wonder Gene wanted help, no matter how hard it was to ask for it. “Can he bring someone?” Darcy asked.

“Like you?” Pepper asked.

Darcy shook her head, even though Pepper couldn’t see it. “I doubt I’m old enough to pass as a parental figure. No, I was thinking of Christy. She’s got a soft spot for Gene; just seems like it might be good if someone had his back.”

More static, and Darcy sent a quick text to Christy on her own phone while she waited. Pepper said, “Basically no one has any idea how Gene’s dimension-hopping in the first place, so operationally we’re not sure. Theoretically, though, it’s totally a go. Anything to get the conversation away from turf wars.”

Darcy mouthed ‘turf wars’ and decided she didn’t want to know. “Any luck on the Captain America front?” she asked.

“He works out a lot. He says it helps; jury’s still out. He’s a surprisingly good liar. He gets along well with Gene, if you count staring at the city in silence as getting along. We’ve got another list of places to check tonight. Maria’s definitely suspicious, if she doesn’t outright know.”

That was plenty to work with, she figured. “Good luck. You might check Latveria, if you haven’t already.”

“Latveria? It’s a mess. What’s the connection?”

Darcy had mostly been following the ‘when in doubt, blame it on the Fantastic Four and/or Doctor Doom’ rule of thumb, but Gene was the one who’d mentioned Cthulu. She said, “Doom was messing around with a lot of forces beyond his control, right? Sounds like a universal constant. So, you never know. Plus I hear chaos makes a decent cover, in case he’s awake and on the run. When’s dinner, by the way? So I can know when to make sure Gene’s headed back.”

She got a confirmation of 7 pm for dinner and a promise to investigate Latveria and counted it as her good deed for the day. Before she could end the call, though, Pepper said, “So, I’m not sure how to say this, but Gene listens to you, so maybe you could tell him. And it’s not that we don’t want him to do whatever he wants — unless it’s trying to take over the world again; that’s probably not a good idea. But it seems like he’s enjoying going back and forth, even though for a while it kind of felt like he was just running away. He doesn’t need to though, you know?”

Darcy tried to sort through the barrage of words. “Not really, no.”

“I mean, it’s pretty much a given that Tony would have gone for the rings if Gene hadn’t. They probably wouldn’t have worked, but what if they had? Then where would we be?”

And now they were headed further into ‘no idea what you’re talking about’ territory. It actually seemed like Pepper was waiting for an answer, though, or maybe just arguing with someone in the background. “I’m not sure?” Darcy guessed.

“Exactly! So if there was any way you could help him understand that, it would be great. He doesn’t need to prove himself to us.”

It was becoming more clear. “You’re saying he wouldn’t be invited to family dinner if he wasn’t already part of the family.”

“Right — so you think he knows already?”

(Personally, she had her doubts.) “I don’t know. I’ll work on it from this end. You should probably tell him yourself, though.”

There was a sigh, and Pepper said, “We’ve tried, but he’s kind of hard to pin down, and — Tony Stark that was not innuendo, you can wipe that smirk right off your face or so help me I will repulsor it off for you —“

The call disconnected. Well. Suddenly she was wishing she’d tried harder to finagle her way into a dinner invite herself. But Christy replied that she was available and would be delighted — she actually texted the word delighted, no abbreviations — to attend. So Darcy pulled up Pepper’s (her universe’s) email and sent, You are awesome in every universe.

Seconds later her phone buzzed. Yes.

Then a second text. Wait, what?

And then, more surprisingly: Is this about Tony’s mini-me?

***

Darcy wasn’t entirely sure how she’d ended up the dimensional gatekeeper (she blamed Maria, but never out loud, because that was the kind of thing that’d come back to bite you in the ass). Regardless, she was starting to think she might need to call in reinforcements.

Because Gene switching dimensions as a daily commute was one thing — and how were they going to stop him, really, even if they wanted to? But things were possibly headed beyond that. Which was maybe not good? She started with Gene, before he went off for an afternoon of ‘This is Your Life’ with Christy in preparation for The Dinner (now with bonus capital letters).

“So, Gene. Is there any chance we’re going to cause irreparable harm to the space-time continuum with all this traipsing back and forth between dimensions?”

He’d just stared at her. “Traipsing,” he repeated. And then, “The phrase ‘space-time continuum’ is from a television show; it’s not a real thing.”

Which she thought was a frustratingly vague non-answer from someone who had alien DNA that let him use magical rings. She tried Thor next.

“Thor! I’m a tiny bit worried about what happens when different realities start interacting. Like, should we be concerned about entropic cascade failure and changing the future and everything?”

Thor at least looked like he was considering the question. Or possibly he was just considering how many pudding cups he could get away with stuffing into his pockets. (Based on past observation, the answer was ‘a lot.’) “Entropic cascade failure is from a television program,” he said, which she supposed proved that the ongoing superhero sleepover happening at Stark Tower was at least getting everyone caught up on pop culture references.

Four more pudding cups disappeared. “It is not a real phenomenon so far as I am aware.”

Darcy considered a pudding cup herself, but the servers were starting to cast suspicious glances in their direction. “So… everything’s cool? We can just hang out together, back and forth, no problem?”

Thor made a noise that could have meant anything from ‘sure, absolutely’ to ‘why are there no more of the creme swirl cups?’ “Right,” she said. “Come on, worst case scenario, dude, break it down for me.”

“Ah. Well, if the worst was to happen, consistent travel along the same path would create a trail that others could follow. The beings that dwell between realities would bring mighty battle to this realm and it’s sister.” Thor didn’t look overly worried about the prospect. Then again, he wasn’t one to miss a mighty battle.

“They’re dangerous,” she clarified. “And they would come here?”

“They would come here, yes, and to Gene’s point of origin.” Thor frowned. “The in-between creatures are not precisely fearsome, however. More… pesky.”

“Pesky.” Now she felt like Gene, reduced to repeating things.

“Troublesome?” Thor offered. “On Asgard, some keep them as pets.”

That didn’t sound too bad. (Darcy looked around for wood to knock on as soon as she thought it, but the only thing in sight was the salad tongs. She tapped them with her knuckles just in case.)

She slipped away when one of the servers headed towards Thor with intent, and did what she probably should have done first. It was as good a time as any to find out if anyone’s phone would work across dimensions, right?

“Pepper? This is Darcy,” she said. “Darcy Lewis?”

“Darcy? Is something happening? Is Gene okay?”

“Everything’s fine; I was just wondering if anyone on your end was working on the possible consequences of, you know, dimensional intermingling.”

“Oh my gosh, I know, right? But no, the answer is yes, I’ve been checking around. It’s a lot of mystical translations. I think most of them are parables — grass is greener kind of stuff. There’s a lot about emotional trials.”

Darcy was pretty clear on that consequence already. She’d been deliberately avoiding asking about her potential alternate selves. “Thor said critters might follow Gene home from the ‘in between spaces.’ Although he did say they were pesky, not deadly, so I guess that could be emotionally trying.”

“Okay.” Pepper drew the word out. “I guess that one wasn’t a parable.”

“Not so much.”

“On the other hand, Gene’s already had a whole Makluan fleet track him down and try to kill everyone, so we’ve had some practice with that.” Pepper sounded ridiculously cheerful saying it, and Darcy couldn’t help smiling.

“You’re thinking we’re good, then.”

“I think using the rings isn’t going to rip a hole in the fabric of the universe? Tony’s sure he’s not going to either, but he promised to wait for your Tony to check his calculations before he starts testing more gadgets. They’ve been Extremis mind-texting all day. It’s weird — but normal weird, not weird weird.”

“Surprisingly, I know exactly what you mean,” Darcy said. “How about you?”

“Me? I’m good. I mean, I’d be even better if SHIELD would stop snapping up all my best people. When I ask it’s all ‘not without a college degree, Ms. Potts,’ but come on, that’s obviously a total lie.”

“You are totally badass enough to be a SHIELD agent,” Darcy agreed. “On the other hand, you may have more room for improvisation in your current job?”

“Mm, I guess. We could totally do better than SHIELD. You know what we really need?” (Darcy could honestly say she had no idea what Pepper needed.) “Spiderman,” Pepper said, which — what? “Do you have a Spiderman over there?”

“Yes,” Darcy said cautiously.

“Yeah. Totally on my wish list. Also, for Captain America to stop looking at me like I kicked a baby eagle. Seriously, it’s a summer job in project management, not a blood contract with evil.”

“We could get our Pepper to call him,” Darcy said, only half joking.

“Isn’t that who he’s talking with now?” Pepper said.

Darcy’s feet slipped off her desk. “What?”

“Oh, I guess not. He’s shaking his head at me. That is some super super-hearing; we’re not even in the same room. Maybe he’ll write down who he’s talking to and hold it up, or something.”

Darcy gave in to the urge to put her head down on the desk, and of course, that was when Bucky and Steve showed up.

“I think we’ve got it!” Bucky said, and Steve — who was on the phone, Darcy couldn’t help noticing — waved him quiet.

“Who was that?” Pepper asked.

“Hang on,” Darcy told her. To Bucky, she sent, *I’ve got mini-Pepper on the line. Is Steve talking with mini-Cap?*

*Yup. He’s walking him through all the focus tricks we picked up.* In the background hum of his thoughts, there was a jumpy excitement that she was pretty sure didn’t have anything to do with focus tricks.

*Speakerphone everyone? Share whatever you’ve got?*

Bucky nodded, and Darcy said, “Pepper? Let’s do a group chat, does that work for you?”

“We’re on it. Give me a minute to get everyone together.”

Steve gave her a thumbs up and kept talking. Bucky circled around the desk and said quietly, “The other Cap isn’t doing so great. We’ve got an idea to find that world’s me, or at least some other wolves for him to stabilize off of. The combination of werewolf and supersoldier serum is doing a number on him. I texted Calle too.”

“Not the Sarahs?” she asked. The Canadian group was their usual go-to for wolf-related questions.

Bucky shrugged and almost sold it as casual, but he didn’t meet her eyes when he explained, “There’s a non-zero chance that other me will be a brainwashed killing machine. Calle seemed like the better choice.”

There was a knock on the office door, and she looked up to see Flash hovering in the entrance. He held up his phone. “Calle asked me to come see what she just volunteered for?” he said. “I was here anyway, doing a supply run for another meeting.”

Gene was right behind him, followed by Christy, and the space really wasn’t designed to hold six people. Somehow they made it work. (Gene gave the room at large a wary look, followed by a sigh, and Christy patted his shoulder.) He waved his phone slightly. “Someone’s going to explain this, right?”

***

“Is anyone else getting a 101 Dalmations vibe right now?”

“You mean the Midnight Bark? I was trying not to mention it.”

“I thought it was the Twilight Bark, wasn’t it?”

“Huh. That does make more sense.”

“Shh!”

Darcy glared at her phone as though whoever had shushed her would be able to see it. She was at the Foundation, because it was way more comfortable to hang out there in the middle of the night than SHIELD. (Better snacks, better furniture, fewer prying ears and eyes.) “What are they doing now?” she asked.

Thank goodness for Pepper. “Still in the setup phase. Which means there’s no actual reason to be quiet, Rhodey, come on.”

It turned out there was a limit to the number of people Gene was willing to guarantee he could get correctly from one dimension to the other. Bucky, Steve, and Calle had all gone back with him. Darcy stayed behind — if things went completely sideways, she was the one who got to find Stark and see if he could work up some dimension hoppers so they could stage a rescue. (She was also the one who was going to have to explain things to SHIELD if they started asking questions, which was another reason she was hiding out at the Foundation.)

It also turned out that listening in on the preparations for what was, essentially, a twilight bark (Bucky called it a split-level relay call, but his Disney education was obviously lacking), didn’t actually take all her attention. She’d already cleared out a week’s worth of backlogged emails.

“Hey, how did dinner go?” she asked.

“It was amazing. You should have seen it — we managed to spend nearly the entire meal talking about Captain America and generational differences. Not a single mention of gang activity. Of course, we may have to actually show up with Captain America next time to top it, but still.”

She’d try for more details from Gene next time she saw him. Still, that was a pretty glowing report, and Christy had been all smiles when Gene brought her back.

Pepper interrupted her train of thought with a quick, “Okay, here we go. They’re going to start.”

(Once they’d gotten JARVIS teamed up with the other universe’s version of JARVIS (‘Computer’ just didn’t roll off the tongue), they managed to narrow the search area down quite a bit. Far from being hidden away in Latveria, Bucky — or something giving off biometrics that were a lot like Bucky’s — was somewhere in the northeast quadrant of the United States. Could be a lucky coincidence, or possibly bad news if the brainwashed killing machine scenario was going to play out. Either way, it meant less travel time, more wolfy howling time.)

Darcy crossed her fingers — and then quickly uncrossed them to jab at the volume button when the actual howling began. The sound was deafening.

Pepper seemed undaunted by the noise; she just switched to texting. Darcy was pretty sure speed-texting was Pepper’s superpower.

Changed my mind. I want to be Calle when I grow up.

Your Cap and our Cap look identical. I thought you were all older.

Wish we were doing this somewhere SHIELD wasn’t going to be at our door in two seconds.

Fury’s on the line — good thing he has Tony’s number not mine.

Bet he will yell and berate but secretly be glad we are fixing Cap.

Darcy smiled at that. Nick Fury never changed, apparently, no matter what universe he was in.

She got zero warning before Tony Stark sauntered into the room. She blinked to make sure she wasn’t seeing things, and he waved, but his attention was on whatever device he was holding in his hand. “Hey, Lewis. Did you know there’s a kid sleeping in the lounge the next floor down? He has a decent phone, which I assumed you would also have. Found him while I was looking for you.”

He tapped the device, and flicked his fingers out, and a picture spread out over the wall. She quickly picked out Steve and Gene, which meant she was seeing video of the other dimension.

“Hey,” she said, because it was marginally better than ‘what?’

Stark shrugged like she’d asked the question anyway, and dropped into a chair. “I asked mini-me who Pepper was texting, and he said it was you. Figured you might want to see it in Technicolor, since you and Barnes are BFFs.”

“Yeah,” she said. “I mean, thank you.” She remembered his question. “And also yeah, it’s probably Flash. He sleeps over sometimes, unofficially. JARVIS likes him, hence the phone.”

She looked back down at her own phone to see she had nineteen new texts from Pepper. The last one said, Too bad it wasn’t Latveria. Yelling commencing early.

On the wall, she watched the group flinch as Fury’s voice came through loud and clear over the howling. “Stark, what the hell do you think you’re doing?” Gene immediately put both hands up and shook his head. Tony, Pepper, and Rhodey turned towards each other for a speedy and hotly contested rock-paper-scissors tournament, which Rhodey lost. He took Tony’s phone with a sigh, and headed off screen, presumably to talk Fury down.

“They’ve got him,” Stark said suddenly, and she found herself crossing her fingers again. “Hope you put your money on non-brainwashed, because he’s coming in as a friendly.”

What followed was essentially five minutes of chaos, as the whole group gathered back in one place and proceeded to shout and wave their arms around a whole lot. Mini-Cap kept shifting back and forth from person to wolf and racing around the room. Then Pepper hugged Rhodey, and Rhodey hugged Tony, and Darcy said, “Hey, can you screencap on that thing?”

“Of course. You want a picture of this?”

“Not yet,” she said. “Wait for it.” It was coming, she could tell. Mini-Cap shifted human and hugged both Bucky’s, and bingo — that was the tipping point. “Yes! Group hug — that, I want a picture of that.”

Stark gave her a sideways sort of look, but all he said was, “That’s one for the wall, for sure.” He flicked his fingers again, and her phone pinged with an incoming picture.

Darcy wrote, Hey Gene, and set the photo to forward to his phone. You know what? Looks like family to me.

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